There are many who can "boast" of miserable childhoods. But Frank McCourt assures us that "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse still is the miserable Irish-Catholic childhood." The author writes these words, then proceeds to take the reader on a tour of what had to be the quintessential miserable Irish-Catholic childhood - a tour that is packed with a startling amount of what might be construed as joie de vivre.
But if the young Frank McCourt had plenty of joie de vivre, that was about all he had growing up. Born in 1930 to Irish immigrant parents, Frankie's earliest memories are of his Brooklyn neighborhood. He didn't have long to enjoy American citizenship, though - at the age of four, his parents returned with him and his three brothers to his mother's native city of Limerick in an attempt to dodge the devastating effects of Depression-era New York City. A reasonable motive, that, but if ever there was a case of leaping out of the frying pan squarely into the fire, the McCourt family's return to Ireland fits the bill.
New York City in the 1930's is a paradise compared to the Limerick slums. Frank's father, Malachy, turns out to be an inadequate provider, unable to hold a job for more than three weeks when he manages to get one, and spending his salary on alcohol when he does get one. Angela, Frank's mother, is a woman broken by disappointment, a harsh and unsympathetic family, and the loss of four of her seven children, who succumbed to the harsh and unforgiving conditions under which the family lived.
Described this way, it sounds like a bitter tale - which indeed it is. What makes the book readable is the kids - Frank, his brothers, and their cohorts; pale, scrappy, tough Irish kids who cling stubbornly to life in an indifferent world. With forgiveness and humor McCourt tells of feeding his infant brothers with bottles of sugar water, scrounging for coal in the streets, enduring the casual cruelties of relatives, and being denied secondary education merely because of his class.
Coming home drunk at night, his father would rouse Frank and his brothers and have them sing patriotic songs and make them promise to die for Ireland if need be. At school, the masters prepared them for the sacraments and urged them to die for the faith if need be. "It seems there weren't many who wanted us to live," says the adult McCourt. But live he did, along the way acquiring a taste for Shakespeare in a convalescent home while recovering from typhoid, learning to love reading at the local library, and earning through a series of jobs passage to America and a hope for a better life upon attaining adulthood.
Though at times painful to read, this book was beautifully written and often hilariously funny. It also gives me a sense of just what my ancestors were escaping when they fled from the famine-stricken Ireland.
Frank McCourt' Obituary on NPR
The Limerick of Angela's Ashes